THE SNP may challenge Electoral Commission guidelines on spending limits in the forthcoming referendum campaign amid claims from the Nationalist side that they would allow the pro-Union camp to out-spend them in the crucial weeks before the vote.
Nationalist campaigners said yesterday they intend to press for “equity” in funding in the run-up to the 2014 vote, after agreeing terms with the UK Government on the detail of the independence referendum plans.
The SNP has called for tighter spending limits and less cash for political parties, fearing that the three pro-UK parties – Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives – will be able to financially out-muscle the parliament’s two pro-independence parties, the SNP and the Greens, in the days before the poll.
However, the decision puts it in potential conflict with the Electoral Commission, which has suggested that spending limits be far higher for organisations and parties to ensure the vital debate is given a proper airing ahead of the poll.
All the political parties and the Yes and No campaign teams intend to spend hundreds of thousands in the run-up to the referendum on campaigning and advertising. A deal on the spending levels in the 16-week “regulated” period prior to the referendum was one of the last issues to be resolved by the UK and Scottish Governments.
It will see the SNP-controlled Scottish Parliament able to set out what the limits should be but the Scottish Government will first have to examine the Commission’s views on the matter before putting forward its proposals. Those guidelines, drawn up earlier this year, disagreed with the SNP’s own initial spending limits.
The SNP said there should be just £750,000 for the two main campaign teams, and £250,000 for each political party, during the restricted period. However, the Commission, the government agency which ensures fair play in elections, said the two main campaigns should be able to spend “at a level closer to the total spending limit” at a Scottish Parliament election. This is currently set at £1.5 million, twice the £750,000 cap supported by the SNP.
The Commission argued that tight spending limits could “impair the ability of the lead campaigners to campaign and inform voters effectively.”
And rather than a £250,000 cap on all parties, it recommended that the limits on party spending should be set “based on their share of the vote at the 2011 Scottish Parliament election.”
SNP figures claim this would give the pro-Union side a large advantage. Based on rules set for the Welsh Assembly referendum on more powers in 2011, this could mean both the SNP and Labour would be able to spend £1.5 million each, with the Tories and Lib Dems also able to spend around £900,000 each. That would give the pro-Union parties a major financial advantage. SNP sources said they believed the referendum needed to be “fair”.
But UK Government figures said last night that the Commission’s views were independent and needed to be listened to, pointing out that its advice had always been adhered to in other elections and referenda.
They also warned that any decision by the SNP to go against the Commission’s advice would represent a “political hurdle” for the party.
A Whitehall source said: “The Electoral Commission’s role will be exactly as it is at Westminster. The Scottish Government will take in the view of the Electoral Commission. The Scottish Government will recommend its limits but they have the advice of the Electoral Commission in reaching that.”
The row will not derail the meeting between First Minister Alex Salmond and Prime Minister David Cameron tomorrow as the UK and Scottish leaders prepare to shake hands on the arrangements for the referendum.
The deal will give the Scottish Parliament the power to hold a legally-binding referendum by the end of 2014. It will also not stand in the way of 16 and 17-year-olds being allowed to vote.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “Tomorrow’s agreement will ensure that the decision taken by the people of Scotland is one that will be fully respected by both governments.”
Scottish Secretary Michael Moore added: “When we put pen to paper on the agreement that I have reached with Nicola Sturgeon, that will be the green light for the most important decision people in Scotland will ever have to make.”